In his comments on Onkar Ghate’s paper, Jonathan Jacobs will argue that one’s power to create one’s own character, while substantial in certain ways, is less than that envisioned by Ayn Rand because of limits to the plasticity of character and because of the relation between emotion and judgment.
Jacobs uses some of Aristotle’s views from which to criticize Rand’s. By our choices of actions, on Aristotle’s view, we habituate ourselves in ways that select what will become our second nature. We are self-forming of our character, but we cannot choose to have whatever character we would like, regardless of individual temperament, tendencies, capabilities, and influences upon us. We are self-forming to the extent that we determine what is made of those standing elements in certain ways.
Having a certain disposition may allow acting against it and eventually changing it, but some dispositions have become so settled one would not try to change them. They have become not just a second nature, but a fixed one. An action may be bad or good, yet, with a disposition that has become fixed, the agent is bound to take the action in a practical sense. She is causally able to do otherwise, but she will not.
Jacobs maintains that we remain morally responsible for actions that spring from our fixed second nature. There was voluntariness in coming to have that character. Nonetheless, we cannot reform our character into any we might aspire to.
Rand had stressed that one has implicit views of life. Jacobs thinks “there may be significant respects in which they shape horizons and limits, and in which they shape a person’s sense of how the project of self-formation should be regarded” (4). How transparent are the significance of our past choices and influences? If they are necessarily only translucent, our effectiveness in our own formation is reduced.
Jacobs quotes Aristotle at Nichomachean Ethics 1114b30–1115a4. “Actions and states, however, are not voluntary in the same way. For we are in control of actions from the beginning to the end, when we know the particulars. With states, however, we are in control of the beginning, but do not know, any more than with sickness, what the cumulative effect of particular actions will be. Nonetheless, since it was up to us to exercise a capacity either this way or another way, states are voluntary.”
Jacobs then turns to the role of emotions in moral life. He allows that emotions contain a cognitive element, but he also holds “that the education of sensibility, the habituation of affect, is itself important to the acquisition of abilities deployed in judgment and reasoning. . . . That does not mean that emotions drive judgment. It is a point about the role of emotion in acquiring the capacity to make certain kinds of judgments” (6). This does not mean that our thinking is not voluntary, but it does raise the question of how much authority one can exercise over one’s psychoepistemology, and this will have implications for one’s self-esteem.